Mushrooming Television-training academies, which churn out TV journalists with shaky credentials, are rather like the kerb-side 'speedily speaking English teaching' schools whose alumni speak Inzamam-ul-Haq's English. That is why one hears of young enthusiastic journalists that BBC's Paul Donahar spoke about some years ago. Donahar described a young journalist chasing the former Home Minister, Indrajit Gupta and when he did catch up with Gupta, the first question was "Sir, would you say something?" And the second question was, "And, sir, who are you?" This was when TV was not what it is today.
There are over 350 TV channels in India today, a far cry from the single channel 20 years ago. India has become the third largest television market in the world. Along with Bollywood, radio, the newspapers and magazines, India is set to become one of the largest entertainment markets in the world. The global entertainment industry is expected to grow to $ 1.8 trillion by 2015 and India's share will be $ 200 billion. There are 36 TV news channels in India and growing with the channels tying up with Bollywood films. News is likely to mutate into entertainment and the hunt for 'Breaking News' and ratings will most definitely bring down credibility. Serious journalism will suffer.
In fact, one can see early signs of this when news gets sensational and unverified reports are pushed on to the screen, taken off the next day and forgotten. Even the responsible and staid mainstream print media, one of the best in the world, showed signs of succumbing to this temptation when they put out full-page hatchet jobs on individuals.
It is perhaps this pressure that leads to the great media hype about breach of security at the PM's residence by three young persons who probably did it for a dare rather than for any other purpose. Surely, our sense of proportion demanded that we first find out what happened and then go to town with this one. In the end, it was an exercise that probably led to tightening of restrictions and the unfortunate dismissal of the two air-hostesses.
Another channel swung into action and we had the story of the three Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists in the CRPF guarding the PM with graphics to show how dangerous it had been for the PM. Again, mass hysteria followed on TV - only for the discovery made that this was an old story that the CRPF knew three years ago and that the three men had faked their credentials as reformed terrorists to find employment. The bigger story was that one has to fake credentials as reformed terrorists to get employment while the others do not get a chance. Quota raj with a difference. But no one followed this one.
Then we had the great spy story of the IB man caught in an attempt to flee the country. Whether or not he was a spy is not established simply because he was foolish enough to try and escape from India for what he considered a better life. From the story given out, the man appears to have been guilty of a gross violation of rules. It seems we are doing stories on the run - literally like one-night stands.
Then there was the story of Prince, the boy who fell into an abandoned tube-well. True, it was traumatic for the boy and his parents. But his rescue was possible only because the army was close-by and had the equipment. The endless 'live coverage', for 60 hours or more, had glassy eyed and bored viewers merely flipping channels. A clear case of over-kill. Rescue over, every one packed up and left but no one wanted to find out how that tube-well was left uncovered. Who was responsible? Is he going to pay the government compensation for negligence and the cost of the equipment and manpower deployed for the rescue, the trauma of the boy and his family? Instead, some compensation was hastily sanctioned for the boy's parents and everyone went home. How many more such accidents take place every day in India that go unreported?
Some years ago there were reports about young children in Sivakasi being trundled off 15-20 kilometres everyday for 11-hour shifts to work in the fireworks factories for two rupees a day. This was no story till the factories caught fire and the children died. Today, the Kareena-Shahid or the Mika-Rakhi Sawant stories are better headline news. Our liberal media has paid inadequate attention to the Surat floods probably because it is in Modi territory.
Cynics even remark that the extensive coverage of Hindu festivals on TV in recent weeks was because most channels expected 'something' to happen. Why do we not instead have documentaries of the kind that we see on National Geographic, Animal Planet or Discovery? Why not a documentary on the Naxal problem, on the effects of poor governance, water shortage in the country or whatever else that will make us a better civil society? Or that India is becoming a dumping ground for the world's 'e-waste'? The media needs an Erin Brokovich. It is no longer the media's business just to inform but also to reform.
Criticism or alternative opinion is necessary and desirable in a free society. It is even enjoyable as some of the spoofs on TV are these days. But exposés and sting operations are dangerous trends and half-baked exposés can be a disaster not just for the individual and, ultimately, for all of us but there will be nothing left - to praise or run down. Exposés on the run can be as oppressive to individual liberties and privacy as the midnight-knock is in totalitarian societies. A sting operation must serve a public purpose to expose corruption, harassment or other wrong-doing. But setting up a sting merely for the sake of entrapment will make the media a loose cannon - armed and dangerous.
It is not what we report but how we report that is important. This is particularly important for us in India so long as we are prone to vicious terrorist attacks. American psychologist Jessica Hamblen had recently conducted a study of the effects of media coverage of terrorist attacks on viewers. Her findings were not unexpected. Those who watched coverage of the September 11, 2001, attacks for about eight hours had more substantial stress reactions than those who did not. It had the same effect on children after three hours.
Two hundred and thirty-seven Israelis were divided into two groups, one group made to see terrorist related clips while the other shown ordinary news. The former came out of it showing far greater signs of anxiety. The media have a very important role in the aftermath of any disaster. It has a role to provide information, make announcements, convey instructions about services available to victims and their families. It can be a great source of strength and hope to the community. But unremitting coverage of a carnage and mutilated bodies has a negative impact and, further, hands a victory to the terrorist.
It is always better to exercise freedom with restraint before that freedom is taken away. And if that freedom is taken away, we will all lose. Our future also depends on our past. But unless we improve our present, we will keep repeating the past. Maybe the media managers need to step back for a while and introspect.
The writer is former Secretary,
Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW)